The Bucks enter their matchup with the Lakers with the second-best record in the NBA. It’s an impressive accomplishment considering they’ve been without their second-best player.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Bucks forward Khris Middleton is planning to make his season debut on Friday. The three-time All-Star has been sidelined since the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs with a knee and wrist injury, the latter of which required surgery.
How big of a deal is Middleton’s return to a Bucks team that already looks like a contender? Let’s dive in.
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When did Khris Middleton play last?
Middleton hasn’t played since Game 2 of Milwaukee’s first-round series against Chicago in the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
Middleton left the game with an MCL sprain in his left knee. The injury sidelined him for the rest of the series and all of Milwaukee’s second-round series against Boston, which went to seven games.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim Bontemps reported a couple of months later that Middleton was expected to miss the start of the 2022-23 season, not because of the knee injury he suffered in the playoffs, but because he underwent surgery in the offseason to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist.
Middleton later said he injured his left wrist after last season’s All-Star break and knew it would need to be fixed.
What does Khris Middleton’s return mean for the Bucks?
Middleton’s return is a big deal for the Bucks.
He might not be a household name, but Middleton has gone from being a second-round pick to one of the best players at his position. He’s earned three All-Star selections over the last four seasons, posting averages of 19.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists on .463/.393/.884 shooting splits during that span.
The Bucks have been fine defensively without Middleton to start the season. (They currently have the best defensive rating in the NBA. That’s a testament to how ridiculous Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are on that end of the court.) Offensively, they haven’t been nearly as sharp.
Middleton might not solve all of the issues that currently has the Bucks scoring at a below-average rate, but he sure could solve a lot of them.
For one, Middleton is an excellent shooter who will give Holiday and Antetokounmpo even more space to work with in the halfcourt, where points have been much harder to come by than usual for the Bucks. He’s a career 39.2 percent 3-point shooter, and he’s a threat to shoot off the catch and off the dribble. Two, his ability to create for himself and others will take pressure off of Holiday and Antetokounmpo to create as much as they have.
Much has been made of Luka Doncic’s sky-high usage rate to start the season, but Antetokounmpo now quietly leads the league in that category. Holiday’s usage rate is the highest of his Bucks tenure, and his efficiency is down compared to his first two seasons in Milwaukee.
Middleton’s return should bring those numbers down to a more optimal level.
One thing you should expect to see more of with Middleton back is Antetokounmpo doing more damage as the screener in pick-and-rolls. Antetokounmpo is rolling as much as he did last season, but his efficiency has plummeted, going from averaging 1.34 points per possession as the screener to 1.06.
For context, that’s the difference between Antetokounmpo ranking in the 85th percentile and 28th percentile in efficiency. Basically, top tier to bad. Having his favorite pick-and-roll partner back should make a big difference.
Go underneath screens against Middleton, and you’re toast. (Middleton was one of the most effective pull-up shooters in the NBA in the 2021-22 season.) Show him extra attention or switch, and you risk Antetokounmpo slipping to the basket, which rarely ends well for the defense.
Ultimately, we’re talking about a multi-time All-Star rejoining a team that’s already on pace to win 61 games. Even if it takes him some time to find his rhythm after almost eight months off, Middleton’s return has the potential to be a game-changer for the Bucks.
“It’s wild, you know, it’s wild,” Lopez said of Middleton’s impending return. “We’ve been playing the way we are, and we haven’t had an All-Star, All-NBA guy like that, just tops at his position. That’s scary.
“Obviously, we want Khris to take his time, make sure he’s healthy, get right and everything, but that’s an exciting prospect to think about.”